Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

21 JANUARY, 2013

Vladimir Nabokov on What Makes a Good Reader

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“A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader.”

“All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading,” H. P. Lovecraft famously advised aspiring writers. We’ve already seen that reading is a learned skill and an optimizable technique, and that non-reading is as important an intellectual choice as reading itself, so it follows that reading, more than the mere monolithic act of ingesting text, comes with degrees of mastery. But what, exactly, does it mean to be a good reader?

Last week brought us Vladimir Nabokov’s wonderfully opinionated insights on literature and life from a rare 1969 BBC interview. The beloved author, it turns out, was equally opinionated in his criteria for what constitutes a good reader. In his collected Lectures on Literature (UK; public library), Nabokov offers the following exercise, which he posed to students at a “remote provincial college” while on an extended lecture tour:

Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

  1. The reader should belong to a book club.
  2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
  3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
  4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
  5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
  6. The reader should be a budding author.
  7. The reader should have imagination.
  8. The reader should have memory.
  9. The reader should have a dictionary.
  10. The reader should have some artistic sense.

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.

He goes on to consider the element of time in reading, making a case for the value of rereading:

Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development. The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement. A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.

Complement with Mark Twain’s humorous list of the fourteen types of readers.

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21 JANUARY, 2013

How Lantern Slides Revolutionized Education: A Protein Story

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When an old entertainment technology brought the world to the lecture hall, bridging science and art.

We’ve already seen how the humble lantern slide changed photography and storytelling, but little credence is given to how profoundly it changed education and the academic world. In the altogether excellent biography I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science (UK; public library) — which tells the story of a pioneering and controversial female mathematician who helped shed light on the molecular structure of proteins, was the first woman to receive a Doctor of Science degree from Oxford University, and embodied the cross-pollination of disciplines two decades before C. P. Snow’s famous lament about the “two cultures”Marjorie Senechal writes:

Lantern slides — glass slides 3.5 x 4 inches, with photographic images transferred to them by any of several methods — were patented in 1850. The invention brought the inventors, William and Frederick Langenheim of Philadelphia, a medal at the first of the great world fairs, the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. The brothers meant to entertain, nothing more. But the impact of these replicable, portable slides was far greater: the lantern slide brought the world to the lecture hall. In its century-long heyday, from the invention of photography to the Second World War, the ‘magic lantern’ transformed the transmission of art and science.

Dorothy Wrinch's cracked lantern slide showing her protein model. The model was constructed and photographed in Niels Bohr's laboratory in Copenhagen; the lantern slide was made for Irving Langmuir, 1940.

Senechal, who had assisted with Wrinch with a book and had spent considerable time with the scientists in her final years, recalls trying to make sense of Wrinch’s belongings after her death, including her astounding lantern slides:

As I grope my way back through the cluttered cage, I spot a cardboard box on a high shelf of metal staging. It’s very heavy; I can scarcely lift it down. It’s filled with lantern slides. These slides have no numbers, and most have no envelope. I browse through them: models, crystals, diffraction patterns. The images are elegant, concise, precise. My heart skips a beat; then tears blur my eyes: these are Dorothy’s slides. She must have stashed them here when the science center opened, to great fanfare, in 1965. Her new office was small and by then lantern slides were history, supplanted by new technology: Kodak carousels, overhead projectors. She would never use her lantern slides again.

The oldest slides in the box are hand-made: disintegrating negatives clamped between glass plates, bound with red or black tape. I hold one up to the light. The glass is cracked, the aged tape disintegrating.

Dorothy’s protein model. Simple, beautiful, elegant. The geometrical objet d’art that catalyzed research on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dorothy Wrinch's lantern slide showing cyclol fragments as denatured proteins.

I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science is absolutely fantastic in its entirety — poignant, rigorously researched, absorbingly narrated, impossible to put down. Do pick it up.

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18 JANUARY, 2013

Vladimir Nabokov on Literature and Life: A Rare 1969 BBC Interview

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“The arrows of adverse criticism cannot scratch, let alone pierce, the shield of what disappointed archers call my ‘self-assurance.'”

In the fall of 1969, British broadcaster and journalist James Mossman submitted 58 questions on literature and life for celebrated author Vladimir Nabokovbutterfly-lover, master of melancholy, frequenter of ideal bookshelves — for an episode of BBC-2’s Review. Nabokov ended up answering 40 of them in what is best described as part interview, part performance art, eventually published in Strong Opinions (UK; public library) — a 1973 collection of Nabokov’s finest interviews, articles and editorials. Some of the conversation is preserved in this rare original audio, with highlights transcribed below:

JM: Is writing your novels pleasure or drudgery?

VN: Pleasure and agony while composing the book in my mind; harrowing irritation when struggling with my tools and viscera — the pencil that needs resharpening, the card that has to be rewritten, the bladder that has to be drained, the word that I always misspell and always have to look up. Then the labor of reading the typescript prepared by a secretary, the correction of my major mistakes and her minor ones, transferring corrections to other copies, misplacing pages, trying to remember something that had to be crossed out or inserted. Repeating the process when proofreading. Unpacking the radiant, beautiful, plump advance copy, opening it — and discovering a stupid oversight committed by me, allowed by me to survive. After a month or so, I get used to the book’s final stage, to its having been weaned from my brain. I now regard it with a kind of amused tenderness as a man regards not his son, but the young wife of his son.

JM: Does the aristocrat in you despise the fictionist, or is it only English aristocrats who feel queasy about men of letters?

VN: Pushkin, professional poet and Russian nobleman, used to shock the beau monde by declaring that he wrote for his own pleasure but published for the sake of money. I do likewise, but have never shocked anybody — except, perhaps, a former publisher of mine, who used to counter my indignant requests by saying that I’m much too good a writer to need extravagant advances.

JM: You say you are not interested in what critics say, yet you got very angry with Edmund Wilson once for commenting on you, and let off some heavy field guns at him, not to say multiple rockets. You must have cared.

VN: I never retaliate when my works of art are concerned. There the arrows of adverse criticism cannot scratch, let alone pierce, the shield of what disappointed archers call my “self-assurance.” But I do reach for my heaviest dictionary when my scholarship is questioned, as was the case with my old friend Edmund Wilson, and I do get annoyed when people I never met impinge on my privacy with false and vulgar assumptions — as for example Mr. Updike, who in an otherwise clever article absurdly suggests that my fictional character, bitchy and lewd Ada, is, I quote, “in a dimension or two, Nabokov’s wife.” I might add that I collect clippings — for information and entertainment.

JM: Have you ever experienced hallucinations or heard voices or had visions, and if so, have they been illuminating?

VN: When about to fall asleep after a good deal of writing or reading, I often enjoy, if that is the right word, what some drug addicts experience — a continuous series of extraordinary bright, fluidly changing pictures. Their type is different nightly, but on a given night it remains the same: one night it may be a banal kaleidoscope of endlessly recombined and reshaped stained-window designs; next time comes a subhuman or superhuman face with a formidably growing blue eye; or — and this is the most striking type — I see in realistic detail a long-dead friend turning toward me and melting into another remembered figure against the black velvet of my eyelids’ inner side. As to voices, I have described in Speak, Memory the snatches of telephone talk which now and then vibrate in my pillowed ear. Reports on those enigmatic phenomena can be found in the case histories collected by psychiatrists but no satisfying interpretation has come my way. Freudians, keep out, please!

On October 23 the same year, The Listener adapted the interview in an article titled “To Be Kind, To Be Proud, To be Fearless: Vladimir Nabokov in conversation with James Mossman,” the version that appears in Strong Opinions. The title is based on Mossman’s final questions for Nabokov, not included in the audio above:

JM: Which is the worst thing men do?

VN: To stink, to cheat, to torture.

JM: Which is the best?

To be kind, to be proud, to be fearless.

Strong Opinions is sublime in its entirety — highly recommended.

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